Melbourne International Arts Festival
The CUB Malthouse, Merlyn Theatre
By Rain Francis
Vertical Road opens with the meditative sound of water droplets falling. The tabs part very slowly to reveal a blurrily lit shape behind a plastic cyclorama. The figure taps, hits and draws on the plastic, creating interesting shadow play and causing waves to radiate from the points of contact. This simple device was one of the most engaging in the show. To me it represented humanity communicating with a higher force.
When the group dances began my expectations were high. Covered in white dust and creating sculptural tableaux, the dancers’ minimal yet forceful movements sent dust flying upwards into the dimly lit space – another visually delicious device but one that I wanted to see more of. When the rich percussion of Nitin Sawhney’s score kicked in, the cast became slaves to its relentless driving force. The movement, while aggressive and high-energy, was simultaneously smooth and in constant motion. This feeling was strengthened by the ensemble moving as one. The cast of eight dancers of different nationalities was superb.
Sawhney, Khan’s long-time collaborator and friend has created a fantastic original score, evoking the natural elements as well as human emotions and impulses. Khan provided inspiration in the form of records by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, which contributed to what he calls “a score of depth and soul”.*
Kimie Nakano’s costumes, which were the same for both the men and women, had a noble, spiritual feel about them, like a combination of traditional Indian dress, Bhuddist robes and martial arts attire. Tabs on the back of one dancer’s costume were cleverly used to manipulate, pull and lift in a violent and oppressive pas de deux.
This theme of control and manipulation was developed further throughout the piece. One dancer took the role of a sort of puppet master, and others responded in various ways – by succumbing, by struggling, or by being immune to control.
The closing sequence returned to the figure behind the cyc, further developing the wonderful imagery from the beginning. With the figure now on the other side of the cyc, the symbolism of the divide between worlds was strengthened. The work finished on a giant question mark. Had this person been saved? Had he been forgotten? Had he passed onwards to another realm? Did he regret his choices? Were his questions answered?
Vertical Road lost me somewhere in the middle of the performance. I’m not the kind of audience member who needs to necessarily ‘understand’ the narrative or the concepts being explored at any one point. I am happy to be transported by aesthetics alone at times, but in this case my interest waned, nonetheless. Perhaps this related to the massive hype surrounding Khan’s Melbourne premiere or perhaps I was expecting mind-melting brilliance. Vertical Road seemed to be addressing some of the biggest questions we can ask – those surrounding meaning, spirituality and consciousness – although the choreographer’s intent was not always clear to me.
* From An Interview With Akram Khan, Melbourne Festival/Vertical Road programme notes.